In Randy Newman's musical version of Faust, not even God is safe from the poison baton. Newman has rounded up a bunch of his friends to sing the parts — James Taylor, Don Henley, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt. And that's pretty close to the roster of the band playing in my idea of hell. Yet Faust turns out to be the best work in years for all involved.
The musical poses a question Newman first raised in "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)," from 1972's Sail Away, one that Christianity can't adequately answer. If God is good and omnipotent, why would he allow the Holocaust, the Cambodian killing fields, O.J. Simpson's acquittal or Jim Carrey's success? On Faust, the Lord, played with relish by Taylor (appropriately backed by a gospel choir), is just as complex and interesting as the devil. That's Newman, of course, and his whiny, bluesy growl rises to the occasion. In Newman's view, God is alternately aloof, compassionate and mercurial. "There's some Buddhists waiting at the pearly gate," God says in "How Great Our Lord," "I had to have 'em put out with the trash." In 1995, the Lord comes closer to answering the questions Newman asked as an angry young man 23 years ago.
Newman's confusion is embodied in Faust (Don Henley), a facile, self-absorbed rocker in a world where God and the devil are often as indistinguishable as Democrats from Republicans. It's a bizarro realm where the "good girl" (Linda Ronstadt) ends up drowning her baby, à la Susan Smith, while the "bad girl" (Bonnie Raitt), liberated by her healthy, un-Christian attitude toward sex, comes out on top. Despite Faust's stupidity (Newman sees him as a stereotypically illiterate Generation X-er), he actually resembles Newman himself in his youth, caught between the extremes of sentimentality and cynicism. The younger Newman couldn't have written a song like "Relax, Enjoy Yourself," which starts out as a glib, sardonic version of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" and ends as something deeper. It's a moving, melodious affirmation of the transcendent powers of forgiveness and redemption.
A handful of weak numbers ("Northern Boy," "Little Island") distract from the story. And Faust's finale, "Happy Ending," is anticlimactic: This tongue-in-cheek valentine to Las Vegas is an easy fish-in-a-barrel shootout. But in the end, Faust not only revives a great songwriter's career, it breathes new life into a musical-theater tradition hijacked by the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber.